ON THE NATURE OF POETRY AND POEMS
A Poetician’s Manifesto
I use the term ‘poetician’ to indicate an interest in ‘poetics’ and ‘prosody’ – and in this case, an interest also in the politics of English poetry at the present time’.
The term ‘poetics’ is used to describe the study of the principles and forms of poetry. The term ‘prosody’ is used to describe the science of versification and metre. Such studies should lead to a clear answer to the question as to what a ‘poem’ is. or what may reasonably be called a ‘poem’. This is an important question, not least because many people these days do not have a clear answer to it.
In early English a distinction was made between ordinary writing, ‘gewrit‘ or ‘anfeald recednes‘ ~ what we would call ‘prose’ ~ and ‘fers‘ or ‘meterfers‘ ~ what we would call ‘poetry’. What we now call a ‘poem’ was then a ‘leoþ‘ or ‘song‘. (The Old English letter ‘þ‘ is sounded as our Modern English ‘th’; and the ‘g‘ in ‘gewrit‘ is sounded as the ‘y’ in our ‘yet’.)
In its technical sonic and temporal nature, poetry is a craft closely akin to music. Our modern use of the term ‘metre’ refers, in poetry as in music, to the measured flow of sound in time. And the term ‘metre’ necessarily implies the term ‘rhythm’. In poetry the term ‘metre’ refers to the ordering of words into verses which are composed of a certain number of ‘measures’ or ‘units’ which are like bars in music (and which are sometimes called ‘feet’). The measures in a verse-line will generally have a typical, consistent rhythmic ‘pulse’ and mode as in music. In music this mode is indicated by a ‘time-signature’ such as 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, and so on. However, it must be said that in Old English there would appear to be no distinctive word or term for ‘rhythm’: the rhythmicality of ‘song‘ and ‘leoþ‘ is implied, and thus we may reasonably expect an Old English poem to have a consistent rhythmic mode.
To this regulated patterning of the sound, as words, of a ‘leoþ‘ or ‘song‘ or ‘poem’ into measured, rhythmic verses were added other sorts of sonic patterning. In early English, verses had what is called an ‘alliterative’ structure. (The term ‘head rhyme’ is also used for this system.) Later, systems of end-rhyme were developed. These patterned characteristics, of measured verses, in related sets, with a consistent alliterative or rhyming structure. were and still are the primary characteristics of poetry and poems, giving them what may be called ‘significant form’.
Poems have of course always displayed other characteristics such as ‘concentrated and heightened language in which words are chosen for their sound and suggestive power’. However, these less regularly-patterned features, though important to the whole nature and evaluation of a poem as a literary work, are secondary and not defining characteristics, not least because ‘poetic language’ of one sort or another may occur in prose work.
Poems are made to be performed. either aloud or internally. to be ‘played’ rhythmically, like music, on the ‘instrument’ of the voice. The temporal and tonal form of a poem is as important as what the words of a poem may say and be thought to mean. Poetry written in any age is better enjoyed and understood when we are able to perform the verses so far as possible in their original tones, measures and rhythm, in the manner that their maker intended. Indeed, I would say that we cannot know and understand any poem fully until we are able to so perform it. Through the repeated overt or covert recitation of a poem, the simple or more complex meanings of the words become synthesized with the patterned, rhythmic measures which inform the verses, to give an especial pleasure to the whole being.
The metred verses of what I call a ‘true poem’ move in a measured way by means of ‘beats’ or pulses (or, as is often said, ‘stresses’). This is the basis of what I call ‘the songness and dancingness’ of verse. These beats are to be thought of and performed more or less ‘isochronously’ – that is, evenly spaced in time. I say ‘more or less’ evenly spaced because the elements of language are not, for one thing, as simple and discreet as musical notes; and because, secondly, the expressive use of language which also characterises poetry often results in a less strict keeping of time (though the notion of isochronism should always inform a poem in performance).
So, regarding the scansion and performance of English poetry, I propose that the most simple and comprehensive way to describe and account for the metrical shape and movement of a poem is what I call a ‘musicalistic’ one: that is, a method that applies musical time-signatures and measured analysis and notation. Using such a system enables us to be specific about the rhythm of a piece and to indicate to a performer how to keep time. I hold that the predominant rhythmic tendency in English poetry from its beginnings has been one that is analogous to the 6/8 mensural mode found in music.
This analysis provides a technical definition of a ‘poem’ in English. This definition may well, when translated, be found applicable to analogous literary things in other European languages, and perhaps even more widely still.
A very useful distinction has long been made in poetics between matters of ‘form’ – the abstract, sound-patternings in verse – and ‘content’ – matters of the meaning of the words of which the verses are composed.
The analysis also calls into question the meaningfulness of two terms now used in poetics. The oldest, ‘free verse’, is a contradiction in terms. A ‘verse’ is, by technical definition, a regulated, metred member of a set of related verses: it cannot in any meaningful sense be ‘free’. Likewise, the second term, ‘prose poem’, is a contradiction in terms: a ‘poem’ is in verse; ‘prose’ is not.
In English today many of the things published and presented now as ‘poems’ do not have the original, primary, formal and defining characteristics that poems have long shown. To avoid nonsense and confusion it would be best, in my view, that these less structured literary things be called something other than ‘poems’.
My original ‘Manifesto’ (On English Poetry and Poems) was first published as a contribution to Quest, the journal of The Queen’s English Society, in 2006.
A subsequent lecture-performance that I gave to the London Branch of the Q.E.S. was reviewed in Quest in 2008. The Observer newspaper picked up on this, and an article appeared on the 13th of April 2008 under the headline ‘Poetry guardians reject modern verse.’ This article may be viewed by clicking here.
The following day the B.B.C. Today programme interviewed Dr. Bernard Lamb, President of The Queen’s English Society, and Professor Michael Schmidt. A transcript of the interview and my analysis of it are available here.
ON ENGLISH POETRY AND POEMS
Michael George Gibson
There is some perplexity in people’s minds as to what English poetry and a poem may be. Poetry was, and to some extent, still is, an important part of our culture and sense of nationhood. I therefore propose to make a definition of English ‘poetry’ and a ‘poem’. In fact these terms were not widely used in English until the 16th century: but I think that it is fair to apply them to some things which were made in this land in earlier centuries.
We have some written stuff from the 8th century onwards which may be called English poetry. In Anglo-Saxon times there were word-things then called ‘lays’ or ‘songs’ which were of essentially the same nature as the things later called ‘poems’. Anglo-Saxon lays and songs were made according to ‘lay-craft’, ‘song-craft’ or ‘word-craft’. The Anglo-Saxons spoke of their lay-craft or song-craft as one in which the parts of the lay or song were ‘verses’. The word ‘verse’ meant a ploughed furrow both in the sense of its line and length and in its turn to make another furrow. These early makers also spoke of theirs verses having ‘feet’ and of their being ‘metered’. Their verses were by and large of much the same length and had much the same amount of stuff in them as the others in a particular ‘fitt’.
The word ‘rhythm’ was not used in those days but was implicit in the word ‘song’. Their songs were markedly rhythmical – as is the case, one presumes, in all early cultures. This was so that anyone could partake in the song and often the dance that might go with it. This is why the word ‘foot’ was used in describing and defining the craft.
The metered verses of the Anglo-Saxon or Old English poetry were further shaped by means of a system of internal correspondences of consonants or vowels at the beginnings of some of the words in each verse. This we now call ‘alliteration’. It is clear that in most Old English poetry a verse usually had in it four main beats or pulses which were linked by the initial sounds of the words rather than their endings – though this was not usually the case for all four beats in a verse.
In due course ‘end rhyme’ came to be used at the ends of some verses, and this system of shaping poetry eventually overtook the alliterative way during the Middle English period. But the metering out of verse into feet was always done. It is to word-things made up of metered and rhymed verses to which the words ‘poetry’ and ‘poem’ were later applied. There were of course other aspects of the use of language that came into the consideration of the nature of poetry: but these were not fundamental to a definition of ‘poetry’ or a ‘poem’.
It was several centuries before any very different way of doing things was tried. Towards the end of the 19th century ‘free-verse’ – from the French vers-libre – became a technique of writing. But I hold that the term is illogical, a nonsense.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (1990) defines ‘free verse’ as:
a kind of poetry that does not conform to any regular meter: the length of its lines are irregular, as is its use of rhyme – if any.
The definition is exact and right except in one respect: it contained a wrong use of the word ‘poetry’, which should be replaced by the term ‘writing’ or ‘word-stuff’, or some such.
In its original sense a verse, or furrow, was metered out and turned in accordance with a system of related furrows (which of course all accorded with the form of the field). This accordance was and is essential to the craft of ploughing and the craft of poetry. ‘Free verse’ is a contradiction in terms: a verse is by definition metered and therefore not free – it cannot be both.
There is something of the same sort of confusion in the matter of rhyme. ‘Rhyme’ means identify of end sound in words.’ Anything less – be it called ‘half-rhyme’ or ‘part-rhyme’ or whatever – is not rhyme, it is other than rhyme.
In the last hundred years writing styles have changed more quickly. Very different things are presented to us as ‘poems’. Trying to find new ways of doing things and new things to make are natural human traits. It is also natural to look for the differences in things and to find words with which to describe and name them in order to discriminate between one thing and another.
‘Songcraft’, later called ‘poetry’, was and is the making of word-things according to certain clear, objective, defining and essential rules and techniques of metre and alliteration and rhyme. These things may be called ‘poems’. To avoid confusion, word-things not made according to these rules but according to some different – and, one hopes, objectifiable – rules, should, as things of a different kind, be given a different name.
The Oxford English Dictionary
A Thesaurus of Old English (King’s College, London. 1995)
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms 1996